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The Unseen Hand

The Unseen Hand

A Personal Experience during World War II by Captain William C. Washburn, U.S. Army Air Corp., (Retired.)

(ED Note: William C. “Bill” Washburn came into my life in the summer of 1976 when he married my widowed mother. To call him a “step father” would be to do him disservice. There are fathers in this world who have twice as much time and money and do only a quarter of the fathering that Bill did for us. He didn’t give us monetary things but was always there when we needed him for anything. Through good times and bad, he was always there coaching, raising and praying but never criticizing. I could not draw up a more perfect father.

He was a tireless worker for the Lord who could always find someone who needed witnessing to. One of the first memories that I had of Bill was playing golf with him and looking around to see if he was going to hit his ball. Bill was down in a ditch with a man looking for golf balls asking if the man knew Jesus.

He was also one of the last of a dying breed known as a southern gentleman. His southern drawl was legendary and one of the things that we loved about him most. Being a southern gentleman also meant that he was always at your service for whatever you needed him for. In 20 years, I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone or anything or not respond to our calls for help. Bill passed away in July of 1996 to be with the Lord. He is and will be sorely missed.

Gary Freeman


Our baggage was all marked FF. we were told that this meant extra fast. I had been on duty as an advanced flying instructor at Spence Field, Moultrie, Ga. A young second lieutenant just a few weeks out of cadet training, when the orders came through. From the very beginning of my flight training, I had been earmarked as an instructor.


“No combat for me”, I thought. “Anyway, I’m too old, they wouldn’t want me.” I was then pushing 27 years old. Many of my friends the same age were now Majors and comparatively uneventful role of training cadets.


The orders came unexpected. From across the entire training command, men of better than average abilities and experience were selected. I was one of two second lieutenants from my group. The rest were first lieutenants, Captains and Majors. We were all assembled at Tallahassee, Florida for an accelerated course in combat training, a course normally taking from eight to twelve weeks, which we were to receive in four.


Following this stepped up period of intensive indoctrination, we were all assembled at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, where we were given the classification of FF. Little did we realize at the time that we were scheduled as replacements following the operations of D-day. This was the reason for the more experienced men, those who could adjust more rapidly, and assimilate and digest the tremendous amount of information necessary in so short a period of time. Looking back, I cannot help but feel a surge of pride in having been chosen for such a mission.

I knew very little of war. As a young boy, I had always shunned fights, being more of a peace lover. However, I remember if I was pushed far enough, or if the occasion demanded, I would fight but only as an absolutely necessity. One of my best friends in grammar school had been a little cross eyed Jewish boy that everyone else picked on. I defended him on day in a real wham-bang fight. He has been my fast friend ever since.

On the boat going over, I tried to think as little as positive of what the future held. However, as I stepped off the boat in Liverpool, England, I seemed to realize just how big a thing this was I was facing. For the first time in my life I began to think about myself, my life and what it was I wanted out of life. There was one thing that overwhelmed me completely. I WANTED TO LIVE, TO SEE AMERICA AGAIN, MY HOME AND LOVED ONEDS. Again the feeling that this thing was too big for Claiborne Washburn to handle or at least not alone. For the first time in my life, it suddenly dawned on me that the only one who could handle something this big was god, and from that moment on I knew that I must make contact with him.


We went though another combat indoctrination, just two weeks before D-Day. This is where we began to lose some of our men. I remember a very fine man, Captain Fling, was killed during this period. He and I had spent much time together on the boat coming over. It was during this last phase of training that made up my mind to place my trust, my very life in the hands of God. It gave me a great deal of peace, so that I could do my flying to the best of my ability and leave the rest to him.


The first mission I flew occurred on the 12th day of June, 1944. My friend, Anse Daese and I had joined the 371st fighter-bomber group of the Ninth Air Force. Our squadron commander was a tall, lean Texan named Casey. As I studied this fine looking specimen of man good, I just knew I had the right man to lead me into combat. Just before taking off, sitting at the head of the run-way awaiting my turn, I bowed my head in the cock-pit of my plane, a p-47 Thunderbolt fight. I’ll never forget that prayer, because it became a part of my routine cock-pit check prior to taking off on my 125 missions.


One day, on the Normandy beach head, I had an experience never t be forgotten. We were bivouacked <camped> in an apple orchard near St. Mere Eglise. I had gone to a great deal of trouble to dig a very elaborate fox hole. A few nights before a German FW 190 had bombed and strafed our area, and it had caught me sleeping under an apple tree. The next day, I went to work on my own fox hole and by the time, I had finished it was the biggest and deepest in the whole outfit!


On a beautiful day in lat June 1944, with not a cloud in the sky and the sun shining brightly, I stepped from my fox hole. Suddenly a great light shone all around me. I was all alone with not a soul around me. I knew it was God. It was as though all heaven itself had descended upon me I felt a great peace within me.


My mother had written me how she and many others in our church back home had been praying for me. I thought that God was calling me to preach, and this in itself scared me to death. I had never thought very much of myself, had always been somewhat reticent, timid and retiring. I remember throwing my head back, steeling myself, clinching my fists and resisting the wonderful, holy presence with every fiber of my being. After all, I couldn’t preach, and anyway, there were so many men a lot more capable than I was. Imagine me telling God what to do!


Looking back, I know that all he wanted was to come in my heart. All he wanted was me. What power there was in that presence, what love, and what understanding and God came to me.


I continued to fly through everything that the enemy could throw at me uninjured. What is more remarkable, I always brought my plane back to our base, at times, in absolutely in unflyable condition. There was one mission, my fifth, while we were flying across France that I caught a direct hit by an 88 caliber shell in my left wing, exploding in my gun bay. The hole was enormous. The short stubby wing of the fighter left little room for such a big hole.

I had been hit over the village of Cherbourg and headed directly for the channel. At fire wall and somehow miraculously, I stayed aloft. I managed to keep my air speed around 200 miles per hour because at any speed below that the ship tended to stall. It was not possible to bank the aircraft at anything more that 10 degrees. I had to circle far out beyond the white cliffs of Dover over the channel and to make a straight in landing, and taxing back to the hanger. The plane looked more like a kitchen sieve than an aircraft. I climbed out and they gave it a classification of class 26 while I was standing there. Classification 26 means junk.


In the early part of December, my squadron had moved from Dole, France to Tauntonville, a small town about 10 miles outside the city of Tauntonville, a small town about 10 miles outside the city of Nancy. It was during this stay that I flew The Mission, the events of which are absolutely unbelievable, and even now as I write this sound like fiction


We were bivouacked in a small town hotel. Christmas came and out soon to be squadron commander, Carson Robinson of Jackson, Mississippi, had us go into and woods and found the biggest tree we could. We cut the bottom out of tin cans, strung pop corn and made other hand made ornaments. I do believe that this was the nicest Christmas that I can remember. I taught the fellows how to make show ice cream using generous portions of powdered milk, one of the few things we had in a abundance.


It was during the this period that one of our newest recruits (I found out later that he was a PK or Preacher’s Kid) Monte Davis of Union, Mississippi, began to work on me about getting up a bunch of fellows to go to church on Sunday night. I was reluctant at first but Monte kept on and so we went. Oh, how I needed this spiritual refreshment. And those wonderful hymns, “Abide with me”, and “Sweet Hour of Prayer” were two of the chaplain’s favorites. I just thank God for the Monte Davises of this world and can’t help but think how much we need them today.


We had gone up on an armed reconnaissance mission with Col. Robby Robinson leading the mission. Enemy aircraft had been reported in the vicinity of Landau, and Robby was determined to find them. He had given strict orders for us to stay together during this period of almost certain contact with the enemy. However,  after more than an hour of hunting it because apparent that there was no ME109s to be found. Suddenly while flying at 12,000 feet loaded with bombs, I looked down through the clouds over Landau. There pulling into town was the longest train that I had ever seen. We knew that Landau was a heavily fortified German stronghold and it been our top priority for a number of occasions for targeting.

Leaving the formation, [I was leading the flight], I beckoned my wing man to follow. We streaked toward the oncoming train. I flicked on my gun sight which was our means of sighting the target on a bomb drop. There was practically no wind which meant I had to make very little correction. The air speed of my plane built up to 600 mph and was still climbing. I trimmed the ship, made one last minute correction, and pulled the bomb release. I felt in my bones, it was a good drop and looking back, it seemed that I had knocked out the locomotive pulling the train.  Somehow, I knew that this was not enough for such a “juicy” target.



P47 Thunderbolt escorting B17.


At this moment, a voice spoke to me. It was just as though someone was riding in the cockpit with me. I know now that there was. Clear as a bell, the voice said to me “Get back upstairs.” As casually as I was actually talking to someone, I said “No, I haven’t finished my duty.” That was all and nothing more. I made my circling turn to come back along the train. My air speed dropped sharply in the process of making the turn. I remember seeing 350 on the air speed indicator which is like being a sitting duck so close to the ground. Halfway through the turn, I spotted the German Flak car at the end of the train.



German WWII Flak Car

It was too late to turn back and we both opened fire simultaneously. My eight machine guns raked down the train as far as I could see. Almost immediately, he had me in his sights, and there was no escape. I steeled myself for the blows to come. His gun fire was absolutely devastating. He was loaded with 88mm, 40mm,20mm and machine guns and all were synchronized with me in the middle. I could see the tracers arcing toward me. Such a fantastic number and for each one I could see I knew that there were four or five that I couldn’t.


Flying at tree top level, I caught the full force of his firepower. My ship caught fire and I was thrown into an upside down position. As I was being flipped on my back by this hail or raw steel, I was conscious of the fire being smothered out, as if someone had thrown a blanket on it. I knew I had to do something to get out of this position, upside down at less than 100 feet altitude. Had there been a house or tree, I would never have made it. Luckily, for me, it was level ground for some distance. I kicked the rudder hard right and at the same time moved my stick sharply to the right. This maneuver normally would snap a plane back into the upright position but that is not the way that this happened. It was though a large unseen hand, as if playing with a toy, moving slowly and yet surely righted the big fighter. I had a strong urge to keep the aircraft down close to the ground, and instead of pulling up and bailing out, I headed toward the city of Landau at weed top level. In this way, the men behind me would not shoot at me for fear of hitting the city and the guns at the city would not fire for fear of hitting the train.


I checked my oil pressure. It seemed to be holding up; nevertheless, I stayed at tree top level for the next 30 minutes all the way to the base. In some way, I managed to get the ship on the ground for a safe landing and brought it to a stop at the end of the runway.

After taxiing back to my hanger, the commanding officer of the base came out to see what had caused the emergency landing procedure. He took one look at my plane and I heard the familiar “class 26.” The plane was literally shot to pieces. Almost the entire tail section had been show away, and we could eight cylinders in the big Pratt and Whitney engine that had been completely shot out.  When I tried to explain to the CO the position of my aircraft upside down at 100 feet, he wouldn’t believe it. “Look at your tail;, he said, “it’s all shot away. You would need your elevators and stabilizers to get out of such a position.”  I replied, “Well, Colonel, that’s the way it was and the position I was in.”


I continued to fly until the end of the war. And I lead my squadron on its last mission against Nazi Germany which was flown on May 2, 1945. As far as I can determine, this was the last combat mission of any group flown in the European theatre during World War II.


“For the Lord God is a sun and shield, “Psalms 84:11. “He delivereth and rescueth and he worketh signs and wonders in heaven and earth, who hath delivered Daniel from the power of the lions.” Daniel 6:27.


Just as he delivered Daniel from the jaws of death in the lions den, even so he delivereth me from certain death that bright and sunny day over Landau , France. He gave my life back to me. Truly, he is the same yesterday, today and forever. He has become the best friend that I have ever had or ever hope to have. I commend my Lord to you.


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There are 1 Comments to "The Unseen Hand"

  • carol ann says:

    I did not realize that you lost your “father” this past July. I am sincerely sorry for your loss. From the way you described him, he was truly a crusader for the Lord and a real Southern gentleman! Please tell your precious mother how sorry I am to learn of his passing.

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